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Mindfulness for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Posted By Katy Oberle, Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often experience high stress in the form of psychological problems, marital strain, and/or family interaction difficulties. [1-4] This is especially the case when the child with ASD exhibits challenging behaviors. [5, 6] Mindfulness-based interventions have been found to be beneficial for these parents in many ways, such as decreasing their levels of depression, stress, and emotional reactivity to “aversive stimuli” such as challenging child behaviors. [7] Additionally, many parents of children with ASD who engage in a mindfulness-based practice see a decrease in their child’s aggression and challenging behaviors and an improvement in the child’s overall functioning. [8, 9] Preliminary evidence suggests that the above benefits may be long-lasting, even months after the mindfulness training has occurred. [10, 11]

The Mechanisms of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has come to be defined as the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. [12] When we practice mindfulness, we increase our psychological flexibility—the ability to consider each situation with fresh eyes and to select a response that is consistent with our values. [13, 14] For a parent of a child with ASD, this is the difference between yelling to get a disruptive behavior to stop, and pausing to consider the possible function(s) of the behavior so that he/she can respond intelligently and effectively to the child.  The “non-judgmental” aspect of mindfulness means that parents are developing more compassion for themselves instead of feeling like it’s the end of the world when they do yell. Instead, they can mindfully reflect, repair if needed, and try again. [15]

Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Parents of Kids with ASD

Before discussing interventions, it’s important to understand that mindfulness, in the words of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) creator Jon Kabat-Zinn, “isn’t one more cognitive-behavioral technique to be deployed in a behavior change paradigm, but a way of being and a way of seeing that has profound implications for understanding the nature of our own minds and bodies, and for living life as if it really mattered.”

That being said, one way to develop a mindfulness-based skillset is to participate in a structured mindfulness-informed group or curriculum (i.e. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), etc). Tasks common to most mindfulness-based approaches include: making contact with the present moment; exploring breathing techniques; increasing awareness of bodily sensations, mental states and emotions; practicing non-judgmental acceptance and self-compassion; and committing to behavior change. [7] These above tasks—with the exception of in ACT—are accomplished through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which can be done seated (on a cushion or in a chair), lying down, or walking. However, it’s important to know that any activity can be done with mindfulness, including parenting! [8, 12]

One Minute Counts

Mindfulness meditation is most effective when practiced on a daily basis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that parents need to be folded up in the lotus position for 1-2 hours a day—though they would likely gain benefits from doing so—but it does mean that parents need to be encouraged to schedule intentional time each day for meditation. Parents can be coached to take “breathing breaks” during the day in which their focus would be on taking 5-10 deep breaths with eyes closed or gaze softened. Often parents need help creatively thinking about how they could squeeze in this type of intervention in their busy lives. [16]

I have found that the image of putting on your own oxygen mask first before assisting your child with theirs resonates with many parents in order to clarify the distinction between self-serving/selfish and self-care/self-sustaining behaviors. I remind parents that they are the foundation of their family, and that it’s not only okay but actually necessary to care for their body, mind, and spirit so that they can be their best selves as parents, and in many cases, as partners to their spouses. For parents who are tech-savvy, there are many good apps on the market (some of which are free) that offer mindfulness-based content and guided meditations. One of my favorites is the app “10% Happier”. Check out the quick guided meditation “1 Minute to Sanity” by Dan Harris.

Practice, practice, practice!

The takeaway is that the biggest benefits from mindfulness come with practice—intentional, consistent, and structured practice—and that this practice doesn’t have to be complicated. I am in the process of adapting a mindfulness-based curriculum for parents of children with ASD for use at my workplace, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in similar endeavors to consult the below references for guidance. As professionals who work with these parents, we are witness to their struggles, and we are best-positioned to assist them in developing a mindfulness practice that can not only sustain them but can allow them to thrive in their experiences as parents, partners, and human beings.


Katy Oberle, MS, IMFT is a family therapist at the Child Development Center (CDC) of Nationwide Children's Hospital. She conducts diagnostic assessments for children and teens with developmental and behavioral health concerns, and she provides systemically-focused therapy services to CDC clients and their families. Her clinical interests include couple relationship enhancement for parents of children with special needs, and systemically-geared mindfulness-based interventions delivered in the context of various healthcare settings. 

 1.         Bitsika, V.S., CF, Stress, anxiety and depression among parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 2004. 14(2): p. 151-161.

  2.         Gau, S., Chou, M-C, Chiang, H-L, Lee, J-C, Wong, C-C, Chou, W-J, & Wu, Y-Y, Parental adjustment, marital relationship, and family function in families of children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2012. 6: p. 263-270.

 3.         Hartley, S., Barker, ET, Seltzer, MM, Floyd, F, Greenberg, J, Orsmond G & Bolt, D, The relative risk and timing of divorce in families of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Family Psychology, 2010. 24(4): p. 449-457.

 4.         Pozo, P., Sarria, E & Brioso, A, Family quality of life and psychological well-being in parents of children with autism spectrum disorders: A double ABCX model. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 2014. 58(5): p. 442-458.

 5.         Estes, A., Munson, J, Dawson, G, Koehler, E, Zhou, XH & Abbott, R, Parenting stress and psychological functioning among mothers of preschool children with autism and developmental delay. Autism, 2009. 13: p. 375-387.

 6.         Beer, M., Ward, L & Moar, K, The relationship between mindful parenting and distress in parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder. Mindfulness, 2013. 4: p. 102-112.

7.         Cachia, R., Anderson, A & Moore, DW, Mindfulness, stress and well-being in parents of children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2016. 25: p. 1-14.

8.         Singh, N., Lancioni, GE, Winton, ASW, & Fisher, BC, Mindful parenting decreases aggression, noncompliance, and self-injury in children with autism. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 2006. 14(3): p. 169-177.

9.         Singh, N., lancioni, GE, Winton, ASW, Karazsia, BT, Myers, RE, Latham, LL & Singh, J, Mindfulness-based positive behavior support (MBPBS) for mothers of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: Effects on adolescents' behavior and parental stress. Mindfulness, 2014. 5: p. 646-657.

10.       Blackledge, J.H., SC, Using acceptance and commitment training in the support of parents of children diagnosed with autism. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 2006. 28: p. 1-18.

11.       Bazzano, A., Wolfe, C, Zylowska, L, Wang, S, Schuster, E, Barrett, C & Lehrer, D, Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for parents and caregivers of individuals with developmental disabilities: A community-based approach. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2015. 24(2): p. 298-308.

12.       Kabat-Zinn, M.K.-Z., J, Everday blessings: The inner work of mindful parenting2014, New York, NY: Hachette Books.

13.       Kashdan, T.R., J, Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 2010. 30: p. 865-878.

14.       Dumas, J., Mindfulness-based parent training: strategies to lessen the grip of automaticity in families with disruptive children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 2005. 34(4): p. 779-791.

15.       Wong, C., Mak, WWS & Yu-Hsin Liao, K, Self-compassion: A potential buffer against affiliate stigma experienced by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Mindfulness, 2016. 7(6): p. 1385-1395.

16.       Harris, D., 10% Happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works--a true story2014, New York, NY: HarperCollins.



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